DUBOIS - Following the final Clearfield touchdown Friday night, some Clearfield fans started exiting E.J. Mansell Stadium. Beating the traffic seemed more important than staying and cheering.
Their team was down 27, but not one Jersey Shore fan left. The Bulldogs had taken their entire community on a remarkable ride and not one person who made the two-hour trip was going to miss the end. Jersey Shore rewarded those fans who made last night's Class AAA state playoff game feel like a home game at times, mounting a 13-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that symbolized its entire season.
Christian Lezzer and Tyler Stratton both topped 100 yards and scored two touchdowns each as the undefeated Clearfield Bison defeated Jersey Shore, 27-8. Clearfield earned a state quarterfinal game against fellow unbeaten Berwick next Friday. Jersey Shore earned respect. A team that went 3-37 the last four years was one of 16 Class AAA teams still standing entering Friday.
Boone Costa of Jersey Shore tries to come up with a pass as Erik Sellers of Clearfield defends in the first quarter of the PIAA?Class AAA playoffs Friday at DuBois. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
A program that some thought was a joke became a champion and now stands as one of the best teams in Jersey Shore history.
"We have a Wall of Fame in our school and we'll be up there for all the years ahead and we'll always remember this," said standout defensive end Zach Miller, who had a team-high eight tackles. "I'm so glad I came out. It's just an overwhelming feeling to be on this long journey and be a part of this."
Jersey Shore (6-7) won only the second district championship in program history and its first since 1997. The Bulldogs went winless last year but were one of the state's most improved teams this season and beat the top two seeds in districts, overcoming fourth-quarter deficits each time, to reach the state tournament.
A program that had found ways to lose so many times before, repeatedly excelled under pressure and rallied to win four games in the fourth quarter. The team became a family with an unbreakable bond and achieved things nobody outside its locker room every dreamed possible. Jersey Shore brings back all but seven players next year and the future is bright.
Whatever the future holds, the 2013 Bulldogs always will be the team that started everything.
"It's been amazing. It's been a sweet ride," said defensive back Brody Smith, who intercepted his fourth pass of the postseason. "It's a whole boost to the town. Look at all these people here who came to support us. We had a lot of people back home cheering for us too and it was awesome."
"We have a lot of great young men with character," Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. "They are some of the finest young men I've ever been associated with and I'm really proud to be associated with the Jersey Shore football team."
The Bulldogs trailed just 7-0 at halftime and had several chances to take a halftime lead. Jersey Shore reached Clearfield territory four times on five first-half possessions, including the final three, and twice were inside the red zone. One ended on a controversial fumble at the 1-yard line and another at the 10 when Lezzer knocked down a pass in the end zone.
Jersey Shore's defense was outstanding in the first half, but Clearfield adjusted at halftime and dominated the third quarter, scoring on two straight possessions before the Bulldog offense took the field. The Bison (13-0) went 60 yards on eight runs to start the second half before recovering a fumbled kickoff and navigating a short field to go up 20-0. Stratton (20 carries, 106 yards) capped both runs with touchdown runs of 9 and 7 yards.
The Bulldogs made a fourth-down stop at the 3-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, but the reprieve was short as Lezzer intercepted a pass that led to his game-clinching 26-yard touchdown run that made it 27-0. The Boston College-bound linebacker, ran the offense well, finishing with 155 yards.
"We made a lot of adjustments at halftime. We were struggling a little bit in the first half with things we were supposed to do," Lezzer said. "We went in at halftime and talked about it and fixed it and came out and adjusted in the second half and played well."
Jersey Shore, though, still a few more highlights left in its turnaround season. Quarterback Logan English twice made video-game like runs on 4th-and-longs to sustain drives and keep the Bulldogs' 76-yard scoring drive going. Utoa Agae-Naipo (98 yards) and Jordan Tawney (80 yards) both made big runs and ran over defenders too. Boone Costa and Derek Leese made big catches and Agae-Naipo scored from a yard out before English hit Leese for a 2-point pass.
The drive did not produce a win but it captured what made Jersey Shore a champion this season. It basically was a picture of its entire season.
"We didn't quit at all," Smith said. "We just kept fighting."
"We never give up," Miller said. "We work hard no matter what, Down or up, it doesn't matter, we always play hard."
Agae-Naipo, Tawney, Troy Rowan, Cody Bradley, Brennan Eiswerth, Stephen Baier and Dylan Hamm played their final games last night. The legacy they leave behind, however, carries well beyond what they helped Jersey Shore achieve in 2013. They set the wheels in motion last December and 11 months later helped a far-fetched dream become reality. And more may be yet to come.
"We owe it to our seniors with how quickly they wanted to get on it after last year to do that again," Gravish said. "It says we're a month away from January, but on the Bulldog calendar the first day of 2014 is tomorrow."